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February 24, 2015

Stronger Regulations in Labor Recruitment and Guest Worker Programs Could Prevent Human Trafficking

Last week a jury in New Orleans awarded five victims of human trafficking $14 million from defendants Signal International LLC, New Orleans attorney Malvern C. Burnett, and a foreign labor recruiter.

Plaintiffs were recruited in India to work repairing infrastructure damaged after Hurricane Katrina. Recruiters promised nearly 500 workers they would have access to green cards and demanded payments of up to 20,000 dollars to secure a contract.

Upon their arrival in the United States, the workers found themselves living in company-owned camps in crowded and extremely unsanitary conditions. Additionally, more than $1,000 was deducted from their paychecks each month for “rent.” And workers were issued H-2B visas, which are temporary work permits that made them ineligible for green cards. The company also seized their passports and personal documents. Guards threatened them with violence and deportation if they objected. 

This case is a clear example of human trafficking—people were lured with false promises of better work and living conditions in the United States. This system of exploitation is often known as debt-bondage, because victims are compelled to continue working for their exploiters to repay the recruitment fees and housing expenses.

Very few labor trafficking cases are tried, even fewer achieve successful outcomes, making the New Orleans case significant. Labor trafficking cases can be more challenging to bring to justice than other forms of human trafficking because, among other reasons, it is often hard for law enforcement to identify victims. Last year only about 12% of criminal and 25% of civil anti-trafficking cases prosecuted by the Department of Justice involved labor traffickers.

The United States could protect workers like these before they even arrive. The U.S. government should further regulate foreign labor recruitment and strengthen the protection of guest workers.

The U.S. government should require foreign labor recruiters to register with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and provide detailed employment information to potential workers in advance of travel, including contracts written in their own language. They should also be prohibited from charging fees. These are basic conditions that will guarantee a minimum degree of transparency in labor recruitment.

Furthermore, the United States should strengthen its regulations to ensure that H-2 and J-1 workers enjoy the full protection of U.S. law, including meaningful access to courts and legal services. As the New Orleans case shows, traffickers are taking advantage of these regimes. Although the victims in this case had access to legal representation, that is often not the case for many H-2 guest workers, who generally lack the means to enforce their contracts in the United States.

These protections would go a long way towards making sure there are fewer labor trafficking cases to prosecute by preventing abuse in the first place.